A selection of soothing, uplifting and non-cringeworthy mental-health focussed self-help books that you won’t have to hide on your bookshelf.
A couple of years ago, as we headed into another gloomy Autumn, I read a series of self-help books that I can only describe as: Women Talking About Sad And Important Things In A Gentle Way. (This follows on from my preferred television genre: Nice People Doing Nice Things.) And they were like a warm comforting blanket for the soul.
So I repeated it last year, to the same result, and then made a promise to myself that I would read the same series of self-help books, every autumn, or any time I needed to emotionally cocoon a little. There’s something about pulling out your favourite books that feels a bit like pulling out your favourite comfy layers – and we could all do with a little bit more cosiness right now.
If you’re looking for some more joy in your life
The Book Of Delights
By Ross Gay
A poet and a professor, Ross Gay decided to write a small essay every few days over a year, between one birthday and the next, about something that had delighted him that day. This book is – as the name would suggest – a delight; the meandering tone makes it easy to dip in and out of but the format also allows for many a meditation on bigger tones, like being a Black man in America, unexpected deaths, grief, love and more. The power comes from what it does to Ross’ mind – and, in turn, to you the reader – when it comes to identifying something each day that brings you joy, and how that increases the joy you experience tenfold. Whether it’s an unexpectedly warm interaction with a stranger, a delicious beverage, carrying a tomato plant or watching a rogue toddler charm a plane, there is so much delight to be had when you start looking for it.
“It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.”
If you’ve had a shock, or an illness, and you’d like to hibernate for a while, please.
Wintering: The Power Of Rest and Retreat In Difficult Times
By Katherine May
I’ve already written about this book before but it is still the first book I reach to when Something Bad Has Happened and I need to remind myself that it’s okay to go to ground for a while. It is also the first self-help book I recommend to people going through an unexpectedly difficult period of time, as it reads like a gentle prescription of how to rest and then rebuild.
The author talks about ‘wintering’ as both a literal concept of how humans, animals and nature move with the seasons – if summer is a time of action, winter is a time of respite and as biological creatures, we are not immune to the effects of this. But ‘wintering’ is also a state of mind – following family illness and her own mental distress, Katherine May writes very personally about how she and her family move through a tricky year and why we need to lean in to these periods, rather than fighting them.
“When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: what is this winter all about? I asked myself: what change is coming?”
If you’re feeling a rise in anxiety
First, We Make The Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety
By Sarah Wilson
This self-help book somehow manages to walk the perfect balance between being an incredibly personal and intimate memoir of someone living with anxiety, mixed with practical tools and a scientific and sociological look at anxiety and how we treat people who live with it. It also really knuckles down into what is anxiety, taking it from a diagnosis to a lived reality: if you are someone who would describe themselves as a stressor, or someone who frets a lot; if you’re pretty insistent on following routines, if a small change can make you spiral, and if you feel lonely because everyone seems to be handling life better than you are, then this book may be tremendously eye-opening.
It’s not always an easy read – Sarah is frank about the suicidal ideation that can come with her particular experiences – but it will make you realise you are very much not alone – and not broken – in your anxiety, and that actually, some of the best things about you might stem from having an anxious disposition.
“I suspect you might be reading these words here because you’re a fretter with a mind that goes too fast, too high, too unbridled. And, like me, you might have tried everything to fix this fretting, because fretters try really, really hard at everything. They also tend to think they need fixing.
And, like me, you might have wondered if there’s another way.
I’d like to say this up front. I write these very words because I’ve come to believe that you can be fretty and chattery in the head and awake at 4am and trying really hard at everything. And you can get on with having a great life.”
If you want some practical self-care advice that doesn’t involve a manicure
Real Self-Care: Powerful Practices to Nourish Yourself from the Inside Out
By Dr Pooja Lakshmin
The whole concept of self-care is so big and vague that one person’s fun suggestion – take a hot bath! – might be another’s personal nightmare. Written by Dr Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and women’s mental health expert, Real Self-Care is full of warm wisdom and practical exercises about how to set boundaries and assert your power, be more compassionate in how you talk to yourself, and ways to help you identify what your key values are in your life to help you then prioritise them. Of all the books on this list, this one had the most practical tips – the exercises are smart and interesting and the ‘what are your values’ section led to a whole heap of Aha moments.
“At its core, real self-care is ultimately about decision-making. You must be assertive in prioritising your own needs and desires. To do that, you must learn to say no and to set boundaries. Balancing the needs of people close to you, like your partner’s preference or your children’s needs, with your own. You must learn to stop being controlled by feelings of guilt, which are inevitable. The next step is to look honestly at what you need (and what you want) and give yourself permission to have it. It’s a process of getting to know yourself, including your core values, beliefs and desires… You’ll know you’re practising real self-care when it feels like your outsides are matching your insides. Real self-care, wherein you look inside yourself and make decisions from a place of reflection and consideration, is an assertion of power. It’s having the audacity to say: ‘I exist and I matter.’”
If you’d like some perspective, or you’re tired of being told to optimise every minute of your day
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals
By Oliver Burkeman
‘Embrace your limits. Change your life. Make your four thousand weeks count.’ The tagline for this book is a wonderful antidote to the age of optimisation that we live in, where we are constantly being asked, in many different ways, ‘can women really have it all?’ Well, argues journalist Oliver Burkeman, actually, nobody can. The average human life is 4,000 weeks long, which is a shocking, depressing and then ultimately freeing thing to realise. Far from being nihilistic, Oliver’s book is about realising how limited our time is and trying our best to spend as much as we can doing the things we like, rather than always living in a perfect future we may never get to. As the song goes, ‘Enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.’ In a world of Atomic Habits and deeply serious articles about how millionaires get up before 5am, Four Thousand Weeks looks at our short lives through the lens of philosophy and psychology, and helps us take the pressure of our tiny little life-span.
“The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or supplied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel ‘on top of things,’ or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.”
If you feel sad more than you used to
How To Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier By Being Sad, Better
By Helen Russell
After eight years of researching happiness, journalist Helen Russell found that we in the Western world are a) absolutely terrified of feeling sad and b) also very shit at it. Described as a ‘part memoir, part manifesto’, this book is a fascinating look at how so many of us fear sadness and therefore lose the benefits of it, and treat it like something to be avoided at all costs. It’s something the author did – after losing her sibling at a young age and enduring her parents’ difficult split, Helen learns to ‘outrun’ sadness, never relaxing, never pausing, always feeling that if she keeps going at a manic pace, she’ll never feed sad.
Obviously, it doesn’t work. And when the sadness keeps coming – eating issues, fertility issues, burnout issues – she learns to stop avoiding and start listening to her feelings. For all of the sadness, it’s a very warm and witty book that’s a genuine joy to read. The science of sadness is very interesting, as is the very different ways it’s treated around this world. Please enjoy this Russian anecdote, as an example.
“Russian adults say that they ’value sadness’ in studies and ‘parents will say that they want their children to experience sadness,’” says Dr Yulia Chentsova Dutton, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. “They endorse statements like ‘sadness helps you connect to others’ or ‘sadness helps you appreciate the richness of life.’ Russian parents willingly read their children ‘sad books’ to help with this… ‘In the UK and the US, people have an almost adversarial relationship with sadness. If children’s books show sadness, there is immediate repair. Whereas in Russia, you befriend sadness.’”
If you know you need a wake-up call
Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living
By Glennon Doyle
At this stage of proceedings, it’s likely that you’ve read this book in three different book clubs, streamed the podcast and are happily anticipating the television adaption but if for some reason you’ve a) missed this book or b) avoided it for all the above reasons, it really is worth checking out. Previous to this book, Glennon Doyle was already a bestselling author, known for her extremely honest portrayals of getting through addiction and eating disorders, and staying in a marriage after her husband cheated on her.
Untamed is about the unravelling and then rebuilding of much that life – and that marriage. The book follows her falling in love with a woman, co-parenting (successfully!) with her ex-husband and marrying Abby, her now wife. But it’s less about the love story and more about the self-love story, as Glennon breaks through all of the expectations that had been placed on her as a woman, a mother, a wife, a Christian and learns how to be her own person. If you’ve ever been referred to as being ‘difficult’ – firstly, great job, welcome – or needed to escape your life every once and a while to let out a blood-curdling shriek in private, you will very much enjoy this book.
“I burned the memo that defined selflessness as the pinnacle of womanhood, but first I forgave myself out of love. They’d convinced me that the best way for a woman to love her partner, family and community was to lose herself in service to them. In my desire to be of service, I did myself and the world a great disservice. I’ve seen what happens in the world and inside our relationships when women stay numb, obedient, quiet and small. Selfless women make for an efficient society but not a beautiful, true or just one. When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women.”
If you’d just like to be alone, thanks (and preferably in Paris)
Alone Time: Four Cities, Four Seasons and The Pleasures of Solitude
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
When I first bought this book after lockdown #1, the descriptions of the author travelling spending different seasons travelling solo in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York made me ache for travel. Now, two years later, it makes me ache for travel AND alone time. I love my bubble very, very much but, like many of us, I haven’t had more than a handful of hours by myself for a very long time, so reading about someone going for lunches by themselves and then just wandering (remember wandering???) is basically like reading a fantasy novel.
In this book, Stephanie writes about how both travel and solitude can be what fuels our soul – and our creativity – and it’s a beautiful, meditative look at how to recreate these joys in our normal, day-to-day life.
“Despite decades of unwanted attention and articles depicting eating alone as some frightful activity, women have long cherished a solitary meal. M.F.K Fisher, who wasn’t immune to feeling self-conscious when dining out by herself, could wax poetic about its pleasures. Fellow food writer Marion Cunningham, a champion of family mealtime, also appreciated solo dining: ‘Sometimes eating supper alone feels private, quiet and blessedly liberating…’ In 2017, the New York Times asked for humourist Fran Lebowitz which three writers she would invite to a literary dinner party. “None,” she replied. “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.”